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Letter To The Editor: Roundabout Battles – The Root Causes?

on May 3, 2016 - 3:51pm
By WILLIAM C. MEAD
Los Alamos

Roundabout battles: the root causes?

Why does Los Alamos find itself, time after time, over a decades-long period, in roundabout battles? I think it’s a result of double-vision that exists at a deep level among both county planners and citizens. My view of this underlying schism has been formed as a result of participating in two expensive roundabout contests, and through second-hand knowledge as an observer of several previous battles.

For convenience, I’ll call these two visions the “utopian” and the “utilitarian”. First, I’ll sketch the visions of each group. Then, I’ll broadly characterize how each group “sees” roundabouts.

Utilitarian-speak can be recognized by words and phrases such as, “artery”, “efficiency”, “productivity”, “congestion”, “safety”, “cost effectiveness”, “redundancy”, “waste of taxpayer money”, “usability”, “smart signal”, “right tool for the job”, “examples”, “statistics”, “analysis”, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Utopian-speak contains words and phrases such as “multimodal”, “sustainable”, “safety”, “friendly”, “neighborhood”, “community”, “green”, “pollution”, “traffic calming”, “skin in the game”, “t-bone”, “Trinity is broken”, “commuters should travel on NM501”, “stop light”, “speeding”, “not like Cerillos Road”, and “tons of data”.

I think of two main streets in the county as examples of the two visions: Central Avenue (utopian) and Trinity Drive (utilitarian). I think of two classes of intersection. Utopian examples: the roundabout on Diamond Drive at San Ildefonso and most of the intersections along Central Avenue. Utilitarian: the string of intersections along Trinity Drive. I’ll mostly leave it to you to watch how the concepts play out in Los Alamos and in your life. I would place a small wager on this, though: I’d bet that those who live in the downtown area, tend to prefer the “Central-ian” model, while those who live on suburban Barranca or North Mesa, tend to prefer the “Trini-tian” approach.

Now, how do these two groups view roundabouts? Utopians see roundabouts empty or smoothly flowing, and easy to use for all users. Utilitarians see roundabouts full of random conflicts and complicated in practice because other users are not very predictable. Utopians tend to present roundabouts as heroes, where everything looks smooth and healthy. Utilitarians tend to look at examples where the roundabout is a villain, where the gory details cause accidents and discourage many people from using the roundabout at all.

In Los Alamos, over the past 20-30 years, the planning seems to proceed in cycles. The utopians quietly cluster and patiently lay out their grand plans. Eventually, the plans come out of the closet, and the utilitarians pounce. Then ensues another roundabout battle. In the battle, things are roughly matched. The utopians have the advantages of heavily populating the T-Board and Council, and being willing to make broad-brush, motherhood arguments. The utilitarians have the advantages of being willing and able to focus on reality in detail and put together rational cases.

My personal position is strongly utilitarian (at least when confronted with roundabouts on arterial streets). I see Trinity as one of only two arteries that connect Los Alamos with the outside world. I see Trinity as the road to take when you want to get somewhere—even within Los Alamos. When I drive on Trinity, I view the signals as an opportunity to use the road to travel, unless there is some specific other user who needs a share. If there is, I am willing to stop. Adding one more signal, I view as part of a team of signals that work to get me where I am going in the least total time. When I wait at a signal, I try to think about all the signals ahead that will allow me to pass smoothly and about the fact that on the entire trip along Trinity, the signals stop me only a few times. I value the unambiguous, reliable behavior. I prefer to drive along Trinity until I am close to my destination, then use a feeder street to change over to Central when I go to a local destination.

Thus, a roundabout on Trinity appears to me as a source of chaos, an impediment that keeps me from getting where I want to go easily and safely. Instead of stopping me when there is a conflicting need, I see two roundabout scenarios: 1) I am constantly slowed down when no other need exists or 2) I am forced to negotiate (i.e., outguess) a swarm of other users who might or might not follow the rules of the road for roundabouts.

I find it supremely ironic that, at the April Council meeting when public comment was taken, instead of relying on speakers to take and yield the right of way in a natural (utopian) way (say, with four podia and microphones giving entry into a single airspace), the “discussion” was divided into time slices and the speakers were told to stop when the red light came on. Even the Councilors (who each had a microphone), spoke in time slices and no Councilor spoke unless signaled by the Chair! In spite of this clear preference for signalized control, public order, and decorum, the Council chose to support the yield- and negotiation- intensive option for Trinity at Central!

So, when do roundabout battles cease? I’d say that it’s when the utopians admit that the right model for Los Alamos downtown transit is a paired Central and Trinity. A thoroughfare and a downtown street. An artery and a local. If the utopians caucus and lay plans to choke Trinity, when I become aware of those plans, I’m going to become upset, and try to quash their plans. If they want to put a roundabout on Central, I’ll tend to keep quiet, or at least limit myself to a low grumble about the cost to taxpayers.

There is one more functional split that plagues Trinity, and that needs to be addressed at the Planning and Zoning level. When Trinity mixes commercial/county-wide functions (Trinity Site, commuting, evacuation) and residential functions (condos and apartments), the differing functions feed conflicts. If planners recognize and deal with this fundamental difference among kinds of needs, I think the roundabout battles would decrease in frequency and intensity.

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